The Elephant of Brotherhood

Sonny was seething. “Ace is saying yes like a parrot! And h­­­e keeps saying it! Just to annoy me!”

“Yes. Yesss.­ YES!”

“Ace! Stop!”

“Yeesss,” squawked Ace, encouraged. “Yeess!”

Cognizant of the need for a tactical change, Sonny dipped into his own arsenal.

“Yawn,” he said. “Yawn!”

Ace, who hates the word yawn because it makes him yawn, erupted in fury. Explosive, yawning fury. But he did stop saying yes like a parrot.

Brotherhood: feelings of friendship, support, and understanding between people. (Merriam-Webster)

One wonders how many sets of brothers Noah Webster researched before penning his definition. Or what they were doing at the time. Evidently they weren’t kicking the back of someone’s seat in the carpool, driving hard bargains in a Halloween candy swap, or splitting hairs over whose Lego that is and whose job it therefore is to pick it up. It seems that any number of definitions would fit the bill.

Sonny: You know I don’t like it when you call me “dude”!

Ace: Well. You know I don’t like it when you say you don’t like it when I call you “dude.”

Brotherhood: the rapid exchange of accusations.

Sonny: Can I look at your new book?

Ace: Yes. But just for a minute. And don’t read the words; just look at the pictures. You’re not reading the words, are you? Don’t read them! Just look at the pictures!

Brotherhood: needless tantalization.

Sonny: Ace, when we are grown-ups, you can come to my house every week. We’ll watch the ball game and have chips and cheese.

Ace: I will be there.

Brotherhood: shared dreams.

Ace: Sonny, in real life you will always be my sidekick, but in the movie I’m making you won’t show up until Episode 3.

Brotherhood: simultaneous injections of confidence and humility.

Ace, for 36 of the 40 minutes of the soccer game, very loudly. (Very.): “Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Go, Orange Dragons! Why isn’t anyone else cheering? Go, Orange Dragons!”

Brotherhood: unbridled fandom.

Sonny: Ace, probably the reason he keeps pushing you is that he is frustrated that he doesn’t speak English yet . . . but he still shouldn’t push.

Brotherhood: wisdom and comfort.

Ace: My friends thought Sonny had been lying when he told us it was raining, but I told them he wasn’t.

Brotherhood: fierce loyalty.

Sonny: I miss Grandpa.

Ace: So do I.

Brotherhood: shared grief.

Ace: My favorite part of staying at the cottage was building stuff on the beach.

Sonny: Mine too! And swimming!

Brotherhood: shared memories.

Sonny: Three cheers for that pumpkin!

Sonny and Ace, in unison and laughter: Hip!

Brotherhood: shared humor.

Ace: Do you like pepperoni or sausage better?

Sonny: Actually, Ace, pepperoni is a type of sausage.

Brotherhood: pedantry.

Sonny: Ace, do you want half of my treat? I think you would like it.

Brotherhood: generosity (albeit sporadic).

Sonny: The Green Bay Packers are the best team ever!
Ace: They are . . . after the Lions.

Brotherhood: smack talk.

Sonny: Let’s leave this where Mom will find it.

Ace: Yes! It will give her the heebie-jeebies!

Brotherhood: the homing in on a common target.

How does one distill brotherhood into one succinct definition? Is there even a workable definition or, like the Indian tale of the six blind men describing an elephant, does it depend on an isolated perception? Like humanity itself, it’s hard to sum up.

Brotherhood: a looming, extraordinary giant fashioned seamlessly from incongruent parts.

Brotherhood—loyalty, parrots, dreams, and all—it’s worth having. Keep it up, my sons.

What Surprises Them?

This past summer I was swimming with Sonny, Ace, and my niece and nephews at my sister’s neighborhood pool. After about an hour, Sonny issued a challenge: that I jump off the diving board, an idea well received by his cohorts. I had not jumped off a diving board in years (okay, decades) but why not?

Overestimating my level of trepidation, the five of them chanted “Do it! Do it! Do it!” in unison and shouted other encouragements as I approached the diving board. After walking the plank and stepping off, I surfaced to many congratulations.

“Good job, Aunt Laura!”

“Yay, Mom!”

“Wow!”

Huh. They seemed impressed. And astonished.

So against my better judgment, I asked the obvious: “Did you think I would be too scared to do that?”

Smiles and sidelong glances.

“Did you? You can tell me.”

“Well,” one of the kids said gently. “It wasn’t as bad as you thought, was it?”

I was much amused by their assumption. And touched by their encouragement and support when they thought I was trying something new and scary. Oh, and mildly chagrined that I’d evidently been presenting myself as wholly unadventurous.

Since then, Sonny and Ace have been surprised over many things I’ve done. Among them:

  • Singing along to “Take a Chance on Me,” a song they didn’t know.
  • Fixing the toilet.
  • Reciting the Preamble to the Constitution.
  • Answering “Buenos tardes, Mom!” with “And good afternoon to you!”
  • Successfully and without hesitation operating a VCR (a.k.a. “old fashioned DVD player”). Bonus points for knowing at a glance that the tape had to be rewound. (And yes, I had to explain what “rewind” meant.)
  • Hitting a baseball.
  • Firing up a gas grill.
  • Identifying Bugs Meany as the antagonist in the Encyclopedia Brown.

And so on. Each time I was somewhat surprised at their surprise, although how could they know that any of these were in my wheelhouse if I’d never shown them?

Recently, after I was short-tempered all day for reasons that were not good enough, Sonny asked me for a small kindness. When I complied, surprise flashed briefly in his eyes. Given the day we’d had, his surprise was justified, but still . . . realizing that your kid is surprised by your kindness feels much worse than knowing he is surprised that you were not too chicken to jump off a diving board. Kindness, willingness to give a little time or to listen, patience—these should not be dumped in the vicinity of Abba lyrics, Encyclopedia Brown characters, toilet repair, and diving board mettle to be trotted out seldom enough to surprise others. Even on a bad day.

Know what’s disconcerting? To ask yourself whether your kids (or others) would be more surprised if you showed kindness or harshness, kindness or impatience, kindness or sarcasm, kindness or selfishness. Even on a bad day.

“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. Be the living expression of God’s kindness: kindness in your face, kindness in your eyes, kindness in your smile.” – Mother Teresa

Sixteen Insights from Children’s Books, with Apologies to the Bobbseys

I loved my grandparents’ house for many reasons. Crafts, Boggle games, the pond, the swings, strawberry plants, the cookie jar (thoughtfully located in a lower cupboard, accessible to even the youngest child), croquet, the purple tandem bike, and, of course, Grandpa and Grandma. I also loved the book stash. Grandma was both the church librarian and a school librarian, and, as such, inherited custody of the cast-off books. Although most had achieved their “withdrawn” status by becoming almost too tattered to read, they were still readable as long as one kept track of the molted pages. Walter the Lazy Mouse, Pippi Longstocking, the book about the bunnies and the weasel (I forgot the title): I loved them all.

Well, almost all. Love doesn’t describe my opinion of the elderly copies of The Bobbsey Twins. These books held enough of my interest for me to scan them, but little more. It wasn’t the adventures I found so implausible (although for a family from the early part of the 20th century they were suspiciously well-traveled) but the four protagonists themselves. Such goody-goodies. Seldom was their behavior inappropriate, and when it was, they repented immediately and with great remorse.

These “four youngsters” were what teachers would call “a good example to others.” They often smacked of a lesson. Let’s just all acknowledge that few books that trot out lessons are enjoyable literature.

I much preferred Pippi.

Still, many beloved children’s books do contain a bit of wisdom—not that which clobbers kids with the sense that they should emulate Freddie and Flossie and their ilk, but a gentler variety, subtly woven into the story. They offer insights that I hope penetrate my kids’ outlook on others, themselves, and life in general.

Insights such as these:

1.  “The world is full of talkers, but it is rare to find anyone who listens. And I assure you that you can pick up more information when you are listening than when you are talking.” The Trumpet of the Swan by E. B. White.

2.  “All children have gifts; some open them at different times.” Thank You, Mr. Falker by Patricia Polacco.

3.  “You can be happy and sad at the same time, you know. It just happens that way sometimes.” The Hello, Goodbye Window by Norton Juster.

4.  “Sometimes when you’re different you just need a different song.” Giraffes Can’t Dance by Giles Andreae.

5.  “‘Why did you do all this for me?’ he asked. ‘I don’t deserve it. I’ve never done anything for you.’ ‘You have been my friend,’ replied Charlotte. ‘That in itself is a tremendous thing.” Charlotte’s Web by E. B. White.

6.  “[May] understood people and she let them be whatever way they needed to be. She had faith in every single person she ever met, and this never failed her, for nobody ever disappointed May. Seems people knew she saw the very best of them, and they’d turn that side to her to give her a better look.” Missing May by Cynthia Rylant.

7.  “Today was a difficult day. Tomorrow will be better.” Lily’s Purple Plastic Purse by Kevin Henkes.

8.  “Olivia’s mother gives her a kiss and says, ‘You know, you really wear me out. But I love you anyway.’” Olivia by Ian Falconer.

9.  “They were two close friends sitting alone together.” Days with Frog and Toad by Arnold Loebel.

10.  “’I like it better here, where I can just sit quietly and smell the flowers.’ Ferdinand’s mother saw that he was not lonesome, and because she was an understanding mother, even though she was a cow, she let him just sit there and be happy.” The Story of Ferdinand by Munro Leaf.

11.  “I’ve heard tell that what you imagine sometimes comes true.” Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl.

12.  “How can we feel so different and be so alike?” Stellaluna by Janell Cannon.

13.  “Talent is something rare and beautiful and precious, and it must not be allowed to go to waste.” The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden.

14.  “You never fill your own bucket when you dip into someone else’s.” Have You Filled a Bucket Today? by Carol McCloud.

15.  [On the closing of a library] “There will be consequences!” Aunt Chip and the Triple Creek Dam Affair by Patricia Polocco.

16.  “Once a king or queen in Narnia, always a king or queen of Narnia.” The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis.

Inspired by these and similar quotations worth pondering, I asked Sonny and Ace what they had learned from books. Surely one of their favorite stories had offered some epiphany on the human experience. Surely they had not only subconsciously internalized wisdom such as the aforementioned but even consciously reflected on a worthwhile message or two.

And they had. Both spoke up promptly.

Sonny: “I learned that before the Lions were a Detroit team, they played in Ohio and were called the Spartans.”

Ace: “I learned that Zane, the White Ninja, is also known as the Titanium Ninja.” *

Fair enough. Read on, everyone, and learn what you will. Enjoy your books.

*He then proceeded to deliver a Ninjago quiz, which I failed miserably.

 

My Circus. My Monkeys.

“Another rule for when we get a pet monkey is that if it’s ever sitting on the ceiling fan, we shouldn’t turn on the fan.”

Sonny added this rule to the list that he and Ace, ever the optimists, were evidently formulating, while I tried to even fathom such an idea. Pet monkey? What? No! No pet monkey, ever!

At the same time, I wasn’t sure that the acquisition of a pet monkey would alter our household as much as one might expect. This is probably not a good thing to admit, but it’s true. Just to check, I asked Sonny and Ace how they thought a life might be different if we acquired a monkey.

“A monkey would mess up the bathroom!”

Have they seen our bathroom lately? (I will spare you the details. You’re welcome.) Just last week I told J that cleaning the bathroom was the exemplification of futility.
“We would have to buy a lot of bananas.”

The large bunch of bananas I purchased five days ago lasted less than three days. Except, of course, the one with the squished top, and with our luck any monkey we adopted wouldn’t deign to eat it, either.

“It would play tricks on us.”

Yesterday Sonny called me over to (ostensibly) check out one of the perennials he was watering, and when I approached he gleefully sprayed me with the hose. The day before, Ace crouched in quiet wait behind the couch until I settled in with my book, at which time he leaped up and yelled “Boo!” Whenever we are waiting for a visitor, repairperson, or package delivery, one of the boys sneaks outside to ring the doorbell to prematurely lure me to the door.

“A monkey would make weird noises.”

This from the kid who talks like Minion for hours on end? His definition of “weird noises” must be much narrower than mine.

“A monkey would get dirty. All the time, it would be dirty.”

This summer’s go-to pastime is digging in the barren patch between the driveway and the flower bed. Sonny and Ace have carved out a large river system, complete with an island (with its own lake), and fill it with water almost daily. Don’t think for a second that my kids try to sidestep the resulting mud.

“We could teach it to do chores. But . . . maybe it wouldn’t want to do them, always.”

Ahem.

“We’d have lots of fun this summer if we had a monkey.”

Swimming lessons, days with cousins, VBS, camping, biking with friends to the park, visiting grandparents, the ice cream parlor, the library, Little League. Legos, Nerf guns, Elephant and Piggie, helpless laughter. Roasting marshmallows. Scooters, bikes. The beach, the splash pad, duct tape. Tickling contests. Digging in the dirt, spraying Mom with the hose.

My circus. My monkeys.

And they don’t even sit on the ceiling fan.

I’ll keep them.

Overlooking Alligators: On Keeping Your Kidness

“Ah, that thou couldst know thy joy,

Ere it passes, barefoot boy!”

“The Barefoot Boy” by John Greenleaf Whittier

Last year I chaperoned Sonny’s field trip to a wild animal safari park. We had lunch near the alligator pond, which of course was more attractive than lunch. Young would-be picnickers kept abandoning their lunches to take another quick peek. At one point audible excitement rose up from the pond’s bridge. “Look! Look!” Sonny and a few of his friends were leaning over the bridge rail, gesturing wildly. I joined them, wondering what the alligators were up to.

“Look! Minnows!”

Minnows? Minnows?

Leave it to kids. Overlooking alligators, beguiled by minnows.

I reported back to my fellow chaperones, who, after they stopped laughing and shaking their heads, began batting around similar stories.

Of the child at the zoo who wanted only to feed the ducks in the pond near the parking lot.

Of the child at the world-renowned botanical gardens who declared the dandelions her favorite flower of the whole day.

Of the child who dined with extended family at an upscale restaurant and rejected its gourmet offerings to ask for toast and celery.

They’ll sort things out eventually, we agreed. Meanwhile: unsophisticated kids, indifferent to life’s finer things, oblivious to natural hierarchy inherent in food and other entertainments. Little philistines.

Or are they?

– – –

Last week Ace asked a burning question: “What age do you become a grown-up?”

Age 18, officially, I told him. But it’s not as simple as that, of course. We discussed that people become grown-ups gradually. When you begin watching out for younger kids, when you help others, when you take responsibility, when you do things for yourself when you can—then you are slowly becoming a grown-up, even if you are still quite young.

Ace understood. “I’m working on becoming a grown-up by learning to drive already. I can’t steer yet, but I’m learning traffic rules so when I learn to steer, I’ll know what to do.”

Works for me.

Sonny had a question: “If you become a grown-up a little at a time, do you lose your kidness a little at a time, too?”

Yes. You can lose your kidness. You do this when you accept the arbitrariness of Butter Poached Lobster with Lemon Risotto being inherently superior to toast and celery. You discount the fact that the yellow of dandelions is just as brilliant as that of orchids. You take off your superhero cape before exiting the car instead of wearing it into the store. (Sniff!) You neglect to draw or paint, even though you’ve always loved drawing and painting, and you no longer lie on your back to watch clouds because you are too sophisticated for that, and besides, the neighbors might see you. When you invite people to your home, you worry about agenda and perfection of food and décor instead of enjoying one another’s company.

Maybe marveling at minnows in the alligator pond isn’t so ridiculous after all. Maybe it’s simply a show of childhood joy, and I don’t know about you, but I’d like some of that back.

I asked Sonny and Ace what they thought that people need to do to keep their kidness. Ideas flowed:

  1. Watch Wild Kratts.
  2. Build a snowman.
  3. Dig in the dirt.
  4. Go outside and run.
  5. Collect a pile of stuff and build something with it.
  6. Make a nest of blankets and pillows and read in it.
  7. Laugh at funny things.
  8. Make friends with bugs.
  9. Practice ninja moves.

Maybe digging in the dirt and befriending beetles isn’t at all your idea of any kind of joy, the childhood variety or otherwise. But what gave you joy as a child? Those things would probably give you joy now. Go and do them.

How have you kept your kidness?

Beware Daylight Saving Time Monday

According to a 2014 study, heart attacks increase on the first Monday of Daylight Saving Time. Specifically, they increase 24 percent compared with the daily average for the surrounding weeks.

Anything else that contributed to a 24-percent increase in heart attacks would be banned. Wouldn’t it? At the very least, this warrants a warning label.

And, while we’re slapping labels on Daylight Saving Time Monday, here are a few more that apply.

Warning: Drowsiness will almost certainly occur throughout the day, as may random tetchiness.

Warning: Complaints that it is not yet time to get up will be greater both in number and in volume than on other days.

Warning: Enticing children from their beds will demand extra effort. Bribery may alleviate this challenge.

Warning: Attempts of breakfast will prove fruitless, because who is hungry when, according to one’s body, it is not yet 6:00 in the morning? Nobody. Bribery will not alleviate this challenge.

Warning: You will abandon any ideals of your children consuming even a few bites of the most important meal of the day.

Warning: Unbreakfasted children will likely experience sudden-onset hunger on the way to school.

Warning: The light that you enjoyed last week on your morning commute will be no more, and you will drive once again in darkness. Resentment will ensue.

Warning: You may experience cynicism over the misnomer that is Daylight Saving Time. You may dedicate time to privately and more accurately renaming the phenomenon: “Daylight Reshuffling Time.” “Sleep Thief.” “Let’s-Change-Our-Clocks-to-Give-Ourselves-the-Illusion-of-Control-Over-the-Sun-and-Over-Time Day.”

Warning: Bedtime will involve a mutinous onslaught of protests regarding retiring for the night before it is yet dark.

Warning: Nobody with whom you converse about the subject will be able to explain the rationale behind Daylight Saving Time to your satisfaction. Suspicion will rest heavily upon you.

May tomorrow be less tetchy than today. Sleep well–even if it is not yet dark.